I've heard some Christians call it "Gospel math"—the idea that if you are generous with your money and possessions, you will discover that God always, in turn, provides what you need. Gospel math is offered to counter the more human and more prevalent notion that if we give generously, we'll end up not having enough. In a similar vein, I once heard a talk on the practice of tithing, or giving 10 percent of one's income to the church. The speaker said, “If you just give that 10 percent off the top, you just don’t miss it. We have never missed what we weren’t used to having.”
Maybe it's because, as a writer and passionate reader, math is not really my thing, but I struggle mightily with the concept of "Gospel math." And honestly, I miss the money we give away, to the church and elsewhere.
I spent my twenties earning a small nonprofit salary while living in expensive Washington, DC. At the time, I also attended a church that required a 10 percent tithe as the starting place for giving. I gave that 10 percent faithfully, though not always cheerfully. And I keenly felt the absence of that 10 percent from my checkbook. Given how small my salary was, 10 percent wasn’t a lot of money, but it was an awful lot of my money. I vividly remember going to buy new panty hose on a lunch break from work, standing in the store aisle realizing that buying a few pairs of panty hose was going to wipe out the cash I had on hand until my next paycheck. Really, I thought, buying panty hose should not be so painful.
It wasn’t always that painful, of course. I had happy life full of work and friends and church. While eating out usually consisted of a shared pizza, and my mom would periodically buy me clothes to freshen up my work wardrobe, I didn’t often feel deprived. I was mostly grateful that my church forced me to give at such an uncomfortable level, because I knew I wouldn’t do it otherwise.
While we (really, Daniel) now earn much more than what I made back then, we no longer commit to a 10 percent tithe. I am a little ashamed of that fact. It seems a no-brainer. With so much more income, shouldn’t we find tithing easier, not harder? But our financial picture today involves taxes and health insurance premiums and 401(Ks)s and college savings accounts and piano lessons for three kids—things I didn’t have to think about 20 years ago. It's complicated.
Or am I making it more complicated than it needs to be?
Every year at this time, I fill out our pledge card and stuff it back in its envelope as quickly as I can, just so it will go away and I won't have to think any more about how much I have and how little others have and what Jesus told the rich young man and all that stuff about camels and needles.
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23 – 25)
I know that, although we don't inhabit one of West Hartford's finest homes and don't vacation in tropical locales every February and don't plan to buy each of our kids a new car for their 16th birthday, even though I'm married to a librarian and we are essentially a one-income family, we are also, in Jesus's eyes, one of the rich someones. From a global and historical perspective, we are extremely wealthy.
When I read the passage about the camel and the needle, I think, yes, oh yes, it is hard. It is hard hard hard to respond to the Gospel when you are enamored, as I am, of the comfort and security that comes with even a modest level of wealth. And I think that's part of what Jesus is saying here: It's hard to give of ourselves and our resources in a sacrificial way, in a way that requires generosity not only to our children and our friends, but to anyone who is naked or hungry or thirsty or in prison, in a way that asks us to give not just our cloak but also our shirt, to give to those from whom we have no expectation of getting anything in return.
And when Jesus says it's hard for those of us who are rich to enter the kingdom, I don't think he's saying that we'll be shut out of heaven. I think he's saying that the coming of God's kingdom is contingent on sacrificial generosity. The kingdom comes when we share what we have with neighbor or stranger. The kingdom comes when we are as concerned with the welfare of other human beings as we are with our own comfort and security. The kingdom comes when we finally begin to live as if all we have belongs to God, which means we stand ready to part with it when someone else needs it more.
While I send my pledge card back in as quickly as possible to avoid having to spend too much time on these uncomfortable concerns, I'm grateful for this annual ritual of pledging that requires me to think for at least a few minutes about how much we have and what God asks of us. I know I have much to figure out and to do; I'm still on the near side of the needle, figuring out how to squeeze through. Faced with my continual failure to be as generous as God would like me to be, with my deep attachment to money and all it can buy, I am particularly aware of the gift of God's grace. And I am hopeful that some day, I will figure out how Gospel math works.